Low profile but welcome: a Jewish outpost in the Gulf
Friday 02 November 2007
Houda Ezra Nonoo is a pillar of Bahrain society. Her first language is Arabic and she was appointed by the King to sit in the parliament's upper house. It is only her middle name that gives away the fact she is a proud member of one of the Middle East's most surprising minorities.
Ms Nonoo belongs to Bahrain's tiny Jewish community, which, uniquely in the Gulf States, has managed to survive the massive upheavals that confronted Jews in Arab countries in the second half of the 20th century.
Her family moved from Iraq to Bahrain – they were on their way to India but decided to stay – in the 1880s and her grandfather Abraham, who was a child when he arrived, went on to build a flourishing foreign exchange business that she and her husband still run today.
As Ms Nonoo points out, the now tiny Jewish community was much larger until the Arab-Jewish war of 1948 and the establishment of the state of Israel, somewhere between 800 and 2,000. But while there were riots and the synagogue was attacked, she says: "I don't think it was Bahrainis who were responsible. It was people from abroad. Many Bahrainis looked after Jews in their houses."
Her view is supported by Sir Charles Belgrave, formerly a political adviser to the government of Bahrain – then a British protectorate – who recalled in a memoir: "The leading Arabs were very shocked ... most of them, when possible, had given shelter and protection to their Jewish neighbours... [the riots] had one surprising effect; it put an end to any active aggression by the Bahrain Arabs against the Bahrain Jews."
There is a paradox: on the one hand, Ms Nonoo cannot telephone, let alone visit those of her family who left for Israel after the 1948 war. On the other, ministers and members of the royal family here have often publicly welcomed the continued presence of Bahraini Jews.
Almost from the first, the Jewish community, now only about 40 strong, has nevertheless been relatively low profile – so much so that the Jewish mother of one boy at the school in Manama attended by Ms Nonoo's son was astonished to find out – when Ms Nonoo casually told his classmate – that his family was Jewish. "She didn't realise until then that there is no problem and that it is OK to say you are Jewish."
Since 1948, the synagogue has not been used – even though at one point the Crown Prince offered to build a new one on the same site – and there is no rabbi.
But Ms Nonoo says. "We keep Rosh Hashana [New Year] and Pesach [Passover] and the other holidays in our homes. When my son hadhis Bar Mitzvah, I flew a rabbi over from London for it."
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